Restaurant Review Kai Sushi
Off St. Michael’s Drive in the collection of shops that are like the remora to the shark of Smith’s Food and Drug, Kai Sushi has a sweet little corner spot. It has glass on two sides, which makes it feel, fittingly, a little like a fishbowl. On the other side of the glass, people do their shopping, pick up their dry cleaning, and go to the gym. On a blizzardy evening not long ago, the outside world seemed like a giant snow globe, spinning and flurrying around us.
This is not one of those sushi restaurants for purists, where you’ll get eighty-sixed for ordering teriyaki or a California roll. In fact, much of the menu here is composed of items just like that — filled with spicy tuna, cream cheese, and fish and vegetable tempura and slathered with sticky, sweet, and spicy sauces. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because these creative combinations can be flavorful and fun. You just need to know what you’re getting into before you sit down.
The basics are all here: miso soup, savory dumplings, salads, noodles, nigiri, sashimi, and a wide selection of rolls. Nearly everything that can be tempura-fried is. Service is polite and fast, a lot of the menu sounds appetizing, and portions are generous. If you come in hungry and are prone to “eyes bigger than stomach” syndrome, you’d better pace yourself.
The miso is cloudy and salty, little rings of green onion giving it some punch. Stir it and watch the cubes of tofu tumble around, the squares of deep-green nori flapping like a stingray’s wings. The gyoza are slightly crisped, tender, and plump with a mild pork and mushroom filling. Kai’s seaweed salad is cold, salty-sweet, and perfectly rubbery, with the tiniest hint of chile. There’s squid salad, spongy meat tossed with the occasional lashing of nutty burdock root. The kitchen also added a dollop of bright-orange roe, which crunch-pops into tiny bursts of salinity. These are two of the dishes on Kai’s happy-hour menu, which includes beers, hot and cold sake, various appetizers, and rolls at discounted prices (all under $8).
Asking for the firecracker appetizer — the Japanese equivalent of jalapeño poppers — would probably earn you the evil eye at a more exacting sushi establishment, but I enjoy them all the same. Whole tempura jalapeños are halved and filled with spicy tuna and cream cheese, creating an interesting blend of flavors and textures. This version, sadly, was drenched in an unnecessary sesame-based sauce, rendering it visually unattractive and too filling .
The similar Tootsie roll (salmon, yellowtail, jalapeño, and cream cheese) must be a popular choice, given that a tiny one made a cameo in my tempura bento box lunch. The stars of that show, though, were three large shrimp and an assortment of vegetables, including sweet potato, zucchini, and a fat ring of onion. The batter was crisp, crunchy, light, and clean-tasting. It clung just enough but never kept the primary flavors from shining through. Why doesn’t every restaurant that serves onion rings make them this way?
The rolls are pretty and well composed, and nigiri portions are not stingy. The menu offers two green-chile-based rolls, one of which includes tempura chile and, to amp up the heat, spicy tuna. We couldn’t resist the hilariously named yam yam roll, with its sweet potato and eel innards and carrot-orange salmon on top. The sauce had been slathered on too heavily for my taste, but I still appreciated the creative combination. The winning sushi of the night was the dancing spider roll, a beautifully complex blend of soft-shell crab, spicy crab, and cucumber, the top draped in albacore and strewn with roe — the grown-up version of sprinkles.
The daisy-yellow tamago nigiri was spongy, thick, crumbly, and overly sweet, but the nutty, slightly bitter uni tasted like meaty ocean concentrate. The salmon skin hand roll was like a beautiful bouquet of sushi flowers wrapped in toasty seaweed: oily, crunchy strips of fish skin, rice, leafy radish sprouts, and some bonus pieces of crab spilling out of the top. It was a little sloppily rolled, though, and fell apart as we ate it.
Just because Kai serves rolls with crazy names and components doesn’t mean the restaurant don’t take pride in purer things, like sashimi. My six-piece appetizer was a lovely composition of candy colors that included mango-hued salmon laced with pearly-white fat, a blocky slab of hot-pink tuna, and an opalescent wedge of albacore the color of a young ballerina’s slippers. Alongside were a bright wedge of lemon (even a slight touch of it gives your fish a tiny lift), a mound of pea-green wasabi, and a haystack of snow-white daikon. The plate consisted of just a few bites, but it left me sated — and, just for a little while, I forgot to notice the great world spinning outside those windows.